THE recent crackdown on undocumented immigrant workers finally brings the spotlight to the “elephant in the room”.
It exposes the squalid conditions that workers are put in and more so, the greed of many employers.
In the Klang Valley, accommodation for foreign workers in the construction sector is generally called kongsi because most of them are ramshackle sheds where dozens of workers are crammed in while proper bathrooms and kitchens are luxuries.
While in other sectors, foreign workers are squeezed into small residential units and share the space on a rotation basis, depending on their work shift.
It is a shame that such blatant violation of human rights is prevalent, and that unscrupulous employers can get away with doing this all the time.
This is in spite of the Government denouncing such living conditions last year and its current assessment of the relevant laws to address the matter.
A recent chat with several foreign workers near their quarters in Bukit Jalil revealed a painful reality.
Perched on a muddy construction site were rows of double-storey kongsi built with shaky boards and zinc sheets. There was rubbish everywhere, thick dust and a stench permeated throughout.
A security personnel stood guard to prevent outsiders from seeing what was within.
While I was disturbed by the sordid surroundings, the three foreign workers said they were fine with the situation.
Their response came as no surprise as an earlier meeting with Tenaganita revealed the kind of fear and anxiety that grips foreign workers here.
Constantly reminded that they could get fired, arrested or deported anytime, these workers must never complain.
Many employers keep their conscience clear with the excuse that life could be worse for these foreigners in their home countries.
In actuality, these workers surrender to such injustice because they want a better future for their loved ones, not because a worse plight awaits them at home.
The crackdown uncovers the reality plaguing thousands of foreign workers living in such filthy conditions.
Their eyes speak of a helplessness that results from empty promises and cruel manipulation.
Employers take advantage of the foreign workers’ silence to maximise profits.
Furthermore, employers are yet to be required by law to provide adequate accommodation for their foreign workers.
The Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990 compelling employers to do so applies only to the plantation sector.
Construction companies are supposed to comply with the Temporary Construction Site Workers’ Amenities and Accommodation — Code of Practice, issued in 2015 by the Standards Malaysia Department under the purview of the Con-struction Industry Development Board. But clearly they don’t.
The Labour Department also recognises eight Centralised Labour Quarters (CLQ) for employers to house their workers.
Yet, the kongsi is ubiquitous. These deplorable living quarters are not only damaging to the foreigners, locals also have to deal with the filth and other repercussions.
The spread of infectious diseases as a result of poor hygiene is worrying.
Last year, there were 1,945 tuberculosis-related deaths from 25,739 cases in 2015 – a 14.7% increase.
Leptospirosis cases swelled from 2,268 in 2011 to 8,291 in 2015, although a drop to 5,284 cases was recorded last year.
As for dengue, despite various measures, there were still 101,357 reported cases and 237 deaths nationwide last year.
Health issues aside, these high-tension living conditions also give rise to social ills – prostitution and alcoholism being the most serious.
In May, Deputy Works Minister Datuk Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin said the Human Resource Ministry was drafting a new law to ensure better welfare for foreign workers, especially in the construction sector, in line with Malaysia’s aspirations to become a high-income nation in the near future.
Looking at the gravity of the problem, it is hoped that the Government can expedite this.
Inspections ought to be done more frequently and enforcement stepped up to stop these kongsi from mushrooming in broad daylight.
One reason for this problem is the attitude of Malaysians who shy away from it because they think it is none of their business.
It is a duty for all of us. The way migrant workers are treated directly reflects how civilised a people we are.
On pure humanitarian grounds, friends from our neighbouring countries who build our cities most definitely deserve our concern and attention.
As such, the simple gesture of reporting on the horrid state of the kongsi near you to the authorities goes a long way.